Southern Patagonia, Argentina

Information travel in Southern Patagonia : Calafate, Ushuaia, Chaltén and Torres del Paine.


This small town of 17000 inhabitants, 320 km (199 miles) northwest of Río Gallegos, in the heart of the Patagonia Pampas, is in the middle of an important expansion. Little by little it begins to integrate itself to the country’s air routes through an airport located 15 minutes from the town center, built to respond to the affluence of tourists eager to visit Los Glaciares National Park or the Macizo del Fitz Roy. This isolated city, on the shores of Lake Argentino, is the only one equipped with the adequate accommodation facilities and excursion structures for visitors to see the glaciers.


Created in 1985 as a consequence of a border dispute with Chile, the small town of El Chaltén (pop. 300) is the main access point to the north part of Los Glaciares Park, at the foot of Mt. Fitz Roy. This isolated village is fully dedicated to tourism and is known as the national trekking capital. Numerous circuits are possible: from full day quiet strolls through the lake-sown mountains, to the ascension of Mt. Fitz Roy with stages in refuges and trekking on the Torre Glacier. Since weather conditions can be harsh – violent winds, rain, cold, zero visibility – we advise planning ahead with extra time to discover this magnificent region of Patagonia.


Located just 3 hours drive from Calafate (286 km/3h15 to the entrance of Cerro Castillo), the Torres del Paine National Park is an unforgettable tour of 3 / 4 days in Chilean territory. This borders on the Glacier National Park on the Argentine side. Both parks offer a concentrate of the most beautiful scenery of Chilean Patagonia and Argentina. With an area of 181,414 acres, this paradise for walkers, observers of wildlife and unspoilt areas, it contains forests, mountains, valleys, lakes, glaciers and waterfalls, beautiful. It was named by Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 1978.


North of Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean Patagonia, the Santa Cruz region was long an object of struggles with Chile before becoming definitively Argentine in 1888. Río Gallegos is the capital of this province which extends from the Cordillera de los Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. The region is crossed by the Chico, Deseado and Santa Cruz rivers, which are fed by the glaciers before disemboguing into the ocean. Precisely these glaciers represent the main attraction of the province: captivating landscapes which we can appreciate at Los Glaciares National Park, carrying out excursions on foot or by boat on Lakes Argentino and Viedma, among others. We also recommend you visit the Mecca of trekking in Argentina: El Chaltén, at the foot of Mt. Fitz Roy.


This glacier ice cap is 360 km (224 miles) long and 40 km (25 miles) wide. Its surface covers almost 22,000 square km: 85% on the Chilean side and 15% on the Argentine side. It’s the third largest glacier ice cap in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland. The Southern Patagonia Ice Cap constitutes the most important freshwater reserve in South America. Forty seven glaciers have detached from the ice cap, the three most important being the Upsala, the Viedma and the Perito Moreno. Unlike other formations which originate at 2500 meters (8200 feet) altitude, these glaciers are born at 1500 meters (4920 feet) and descend to 200 meters (656 feet), thus offering a unique access and view.


It’s one of the most extraordinary landscapes of Argentina. The glaciers’ protection began in 1937 through the creation of Los Glaciares National Park, which extends over 724,000 hectares in the southwest of the Santa Cruz province. Due to its beauty, its geomorphologic interest and the endangered wildlife it houses, this national park was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981. It includes two great glacial lakes: Argentino and Viedma, and 47 glaciers among which the well known Perito Moreno and the monumental Fitz Roy stand out. The average temperature is 0.6°C (33°F) in winter and 13.4°C (56°F) in summer. The main access point to the park is the small town of El Calafate.


An unforgettable show and a unique phenomenon. The Perito Moreno glacier is one of the few which keeps advancing, about 700 meters (2300 feet) per year. When its 5 km (3.1 miles) wide and 60 meter (197 feet) high front totally obstructs the arm of Lake Argentino, the water pressure causes it to rupture, in a symphony of ice and water which leaves us breathless, accompanied by giant waves. This phenomenon has taken place 15 times in the XX century, the two last in 2004 and 2006. Impressive blocks of ice detach permanently with a thunderous roar. The Perito Moreno can be seen from a boat, from the walkway sector, or you can walk on it with the aid of a guide and good boots with crampons.


It’s the biggest lake in Patagonia, with an area of 1466 square km (911 square miles) and a depth of up to 500 meters (1640 feet) in some sectors. Catamaran excursions depart from Punta Bandera, about 50 km (31 miles) from El Calafate. You’ll sail through the drifting icebergs, sculpted by water and shaded by the palette of blues created by the wonders of light. You’ll tour through several arms of the lake to get close to the Spegazzini Glacier, cast off in Onelli Bay and its Lenga Forest and pass by the Perito Moreno and the Upsala glaciers. This last one is the largest of all: 50 km (31 miles) long, 70 meters (230 feet) high: 870 square km in total… Four times the size of Buenos Aires! An excursion you cannot miss.


With a length of 80 km (50 miles), Lake Viedma has nothing to envy Lake Argentino. It is located further north, near El Chalten and Mt. Fitz Roy. Different boat excursions can be organized to get close to the Viedma Glacier, of 575 square km (357 square miles). The glacier is formed by accumulated caps of snow, which end up compressing under their own weight and solidifying into a compact mass of ice. Like the others, the Viedma Glacier originated in the Patagonia Ice Fields.


Considered a must by mountaineers, the ascension to Fitz Roy is reserved to the most experienced. It stands out not for its altitude (3405 meters – 11,171 feet), but for its beauty and level of difficulty. It was defeated in 1952 by the Frenchmen Terray and Magnone, and currently few climbers reach the peak each year. From El Chaltén, a walk will allow admiring it if clouds aren’t crowning its crests. Its Tehuelche name, El Chaltén, means the “mountain that smokes”. It was renamed to Fitz Roy in honor of the explorer who led Darwin to the region. But there is a more difficult and defying ascension: Mt. Torre, of 3128 meters (10,262 feet), almost impossible due to its 800 meter (2625 feet) granite wall and icy peak.


El Chaltén is located in the heart of the Valle de las Vueltas (Valley of the Turns), where the Las Vueltas and Fitz Roy rivers meet on the shores of Lake Viedma. An ideal place for walking or horseback riding and a good occasion for seeing pumas, grey and red foxes, guanacos, otters, huemals, and luckily Andes condors. The valley is sown with forests of Antarctic Beeches and Lengas, typical trees of the region, as well as with waterfalls, lakes and some estancias. A four hour stroll to the Poincenot Camp will reward a beautiful panoramic view of the entire valley.


The Calafate Balcony, at 1000 meters (3280 feet), offers a beautiful view of El Calafate and Lake Argentino. With a clear sky, the Perito Moreno Glacier and Mt. Fitz Roy and Torre can be admired in the distance. Only condors live in this totally virgin Patagonia steppe, swept by the wind.


A journey to the past heading to the south of Lake Viedma at the foot of Mt. Los Hornos, to observe the mineral remains of Patagonia, when millions of years ago the climate was more benign and its vegetation more exuberant. The formation of the Andes and the volcanic activity buried these forests under a colossal layer of ash. Rivers and glaciers gave them their final undertaking, until a depression took place in the soil which brought out the fossils of those trees and dinosaurs, in this isolated site, in the midst of the Patagonia steppe.


Founded in 1883 in the middle of nowhere, on the Atlantic coast, Río Gallegos (92,000 inhabitants) is the capital of the Santa Cruz province and the only city of the south of the Argentine Patagonia. It lives essentially on sheep breeding and port activity, since it is the shipping point for the coal from the Río Turbio mines. A city (cold, rustic, inhospitable, crude) swept by winds, in which tourism usually passes by to begin the road to El Calafate or Tierra del Fuego. Fishing fans will find happiness in Río Gallegos, which houses enormous trout. Several estancias located a few miles from the city are specialized in sport fishing during the season running from November to April.


Located on a bay between the mountains and the Beagle Canal, Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, presents itself as the “city at the end of the word”. It has a distinctive atmosphere, especially in the port where naval companies register the timetables for the expeditions to Antarctica. But it was not always a peaceful place. To populate this strategic location the Argentine Government built a prison which functioned from 1911 to 1947 and today has become an interesting museum. In the 1970s, immigrants became attracted by the creation of an industrial center and fiscal privileges. Houses with colorful and wavy metal roofs were built, contributing to the city’s charm. It is best to visit the city during Southern summer, when the weather is more pleasant and the nights are shorter.


This mythical land, last stop before the immense whiteness of Antarctica, was explored by Magellan in 1520, who baptized it Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) after having discovered it thanks to the flaming bonfires of the natives. In the past ten thousand years, four civilizations inhabited these lands: the Onas, the Hausch, the Yamanas and the Alakalufs, all extinguished with colonization. Tierra del Fuego is the youngest Argentine province and covers part of the island (21,263 square km – 13,212 square miles), as well as the Argentine part of Antarctica and the islands of the South Atlantic, with a total surface of 986,418 square km (612,930 square miles). The province comprises several islands which are in reality under British sovereignty, such as the Falkland Islands. Other territorial conflicts with Chile, that has the largest part of the Tierra del Fuego Island, still have not found a definite solution.


Tierra del Fuego is separated from the continent by Magellan’s Strait, which unites the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This pass was discovered by Magellan’s expedition in 1520, at the end of a 28 day journey. Marine traffic through this strait was complicated due to the absence of lighthouses; thus, marine companies preferred passing through Cabo de Hornos, until Chile provided a definite solution early in the XX century. Successively, the opening of the Panama Canal limited the relevance of this southern pass. The discovery of oil deposits in the 1950s gave new importance to Magellan’s Strait, under Chilean sponsorship.


Río Grande (pop. 55,000) is the most important city of Tierra del Fuego. It was founded at the end of the XIX century on the Atlantic coast, by gold hunters and Salesian missionaries. A pioneering spirit was very important to settle in these inhospitable lands of glacial winds. Currently, most of the inhabitants are not native of Rio Grande: the Argentine State populated the region through the creation of industrial centers and free zones. Among the pioneers were sheep breeders, who settled at giant estancias which receive visitors and offer us a unique chance of discovering the region. The surroundings of Río Grande are trout fishing paradise.


Between Rio Grande and Ushuaia, a detour leads us to Cape San Pablo, on the Atlantic coast. A magnificent route along which guanacos can be seen leads to an ample beach. The hull of the Desdemona, a stranded boat, has become a symbol of this beach at the world’s end. The lighthouse, built in 1945, was tilted by the 1949 earthquake which left it out of service. An estancia offers horseback riding, fishing excursions or bird watching in one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth.


About 100 km (62 miles) north of Ushuaia, Lake Fagnano extends across 98 km (61 miles), beginning in the town of Tolhuin and ending in Chile. The Onas very poetically named it “the horizon’s rest” because the line of the cordillera is interrupted by the presence of this lake. It is a great occasion to walk around, fish for trout or simply see albatrosses, petrels or the Magellanic geese.


As its name indicates, Lake Escondido is hidden in the middle of the Cordillera, 60 km (37 miles) north of Ushuaia, at the foot of the Pass of Garibaldi. Mountain horseback riding and sport fishing in this absolutely tranquil landscape is recommended.


The Beagle Canal separates the great island of Tierra del Fuego from other small Chilean islands located south (Puerto Williams). It is a navigable canal, 240 km (149 miles) long and 5 km (3.1 miles) wide in its narrowest point. It owes its name to the British Vessel which explored the region in the XIX century under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, then guide of Charles Darwin. From Ushuaia, the canal allows very pleasant boat trips on which you can observe local wildlife (sea lions, penguins, birds), admire Ushuaia Bay, pass by the lighthouse of the end of the world or by Estancia Haberton of the family of Thomas Bridges, an Anglican missionary, the first European who settled in the region at the end of the XIX century.


Boat outings from Ushuaia allow getting close to Lobos Island, a refuge for South American Fur Seals and South American Sea Lions. These mammals are excellent swimmers and divide their time between the ocean and dry land, where they head to rest and reproduce. These cousins of seals and walruses live in colonies. The dominant male leads a group of females which defend by fighting and growling impressively. Before being put under protection, they were indiscriminately hunted for their fur.


Those who will be traveling in summer cannot miss the boat excursion to Martillo Island and Port Almanza, where a great colony of Magellanic penguins can be found. Unlike other species, this penguin cannot fly. It chooses these lands, as well as the Valdes Peninsula in Northern Patagonia, to reproduce. Its fur is black and white and it’s not too tall: approximately 75 cm (30 inches). The clumsiness it presents on dry land disappears in the water, where with surprising agility it finds crustaceans and mollusks for itself and its offspring. These birds live in couples and colonies to protect themselves.


Tierra del Fuego National Park was created in 1960, on a surface of 63.000 hectares. It protects the southernmost Patagonia-Andes forest in a landscape of steep mountains with access to the coast. Diverse paths open up to explore the peat landscapes and the lenga and sour cherry tree forests, perfumed in spring by yellow orchids. Beavers inhabit these lands: they were introduced in the 1940s and today create important damage. You’ll also see foxes, guanacos, bats and upland geese. The coastal road borders Lapataia Bay and leads to a sign which reminds us of La Quiaca, on the Bolivian border, over 5000 km (3107 miles) away! The Train of the End of the World, identical to the one used by the prisoners, is another option for strolling around the park.


Mythical and fearful, Cape Horn, on Chilean territory, is the southernmost point of South America. Captains were frightened by this crucial pass between the European and Asian commercial routes. It was one of the most difficult crossings due to the strong winds which blow in this area – the famous 40 roars – the marine currents, the giant waves and the icebergs. Also known as Cape of the Storms, it is a true marine cemetery. This 425 meter (1394 feet) cliff can be accessed from Ushuaia when weather conditions allow it, or flying over it by plane. The Chilean marine keeps a station on the island, as well as a lighthouse, which’s keeper is the only permanent resident.